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Q&A: Tei Shi Discusses the Problem with ‘Diva’ Belting and the Power of the Mermaid

Valerie Teicher, a.k.a. Tei Shi, accurately (although flippantly) characterizes her celestial, wide-ranging vocal style as “Mermaid Music.” What started off as a tongue-in-cheek way of filling in space on her Facebook page established an accurate description and also simultaneously, has become fitting for Tei Shi’s philosophy of dissociating against restrictive labels. “A mermaid can sound like whatever she wants to sound like,” Teicher explains.

The Argentinian-born singer-songwriter has just released Verde, the follow-up to 2013’s Saudade, which is full of fanciful production adornments with fast-paced synth shadows cast over her feathery harmonies, adding to her fairy-tale vocal qualities. Tei Shi describes that this Verde is a product of her growing process in the music industry, which is confirmed in its wider vocal range and vast pop terrain.

SPIN talked over the phone with Teicher to find out more about her vision behind the new EP, and overcoming minor growing pains as a rising new artist in the music industry.

So Verde is different from Saudade because there’s a physical component of the release, but did you also notice a difference when you were recording it?
The first EP, most of the songs, I wrote throughout a period of two or three years. I was writing stuff in isolation and it was more of a self-indulgent thing. It was just personal and very stripped-down. I had really limited resources and capabilities in terms of that process of writing and recording when I was working on the songs, so that led to that EP and the music on it being very minimal. The production was not elaborate and it was very raw.

With Verde, I had gained the experience of putting stuff out, observing how people respond to things, and playing live. I think all those things came into play when I was working on new music. My mentality shifted away from “Me, me, me” towards what I thought people would like to hear. I wanted the songs to be more dynamic, kind of upbeat and lighthearted.

Where does the name Verde come from? Does that have a personal meaning?
The name means green in Spanish and it was just something that during the ten months or so of time where I was working on this EP, for one reason or another, played a part in my life. I was wearing a lot of green.

Aside from that, it had a more symbolic meaning in my life where I felt like I was going through this phase of coming into my own a little bit, and this EP is to me a part of that. I put out the first EP and just tossed myself into this environment where I had no idea what I was doing and I was just this little seedling. I just started to grow a little bit and learn a lot throughout that time. I was this green thing that was growing. It’s a beautiful word and I just thought that it kind of fit well with what the EP was to me.

The single “Bassically” sticks out on the new EP because of the new vocal range and danceable sound you reveal, and its video is surreal and a little silly. Was that just something you did for fun or something you think captures the EP’s vibe as a whole?
I think it captured that song well. I feel like it could be really easy to make a video that’s just like “Hey, here’s me singing this song, and it’s cool.” I wanted to give it a playful and goofier side. That silly side came together more in the post-production. Then Nick Pesce, who I did the video with, we’ve been talking about the video for a while and that concept and the aesthetic of an ‘80s, comic book-y, grindhouse feel came up. There is both a serious and fun aspect to it.

I think I had a similar approach to the EP as a whole. It was something that didn’t take itself too seriously, this big and emotional thing that [Saudade] was, but more something that is enjoyable. In that way the video does speak to the whole EP.

So since it’s more of a playful image of the song, you wouldn’t categorize it as a feminist anthem, or containing that kind of subliminal message?
Yes, it definitely does have that emotion behind it. I wouldn’t say that the playful nature of it takes away from any more substantial, serious message. That song was written from a very personal, emotional standpoint. It’s not a detached message. For me the song was more of a general personal anthem of empowerment and breaking out of limitations or expectation.

That came through in a number of different ways, but a big one was just the feeling of being a female in music and the limitations, constraints, and expectations that come with it, and the desire to break away from that. I think it translates into any kind of relationship that you have. I wouldn’t say it is exclusive to feminist issues or a female perspective, but for me that is definitely a perspective that came through.

You utilize a lot of electronic production and ‘80s-inspired sounds. Do you draw influence specifically from that decade’s music?
I think I indirectly have that influence because I have three older sisters and with two of them, there’s a big age gap between us. So now my two older sisters are married and have kids, but when I was really little, when my impression of pop culture was being formed, they were teenagers in the early ‘90s. There was this huge influence around me of MTV and Michael Jackson, Madonna and all this stuff. I think subconsciously that entered my psyche of what pop music was. I also love older music from the ‘80s and ‘90s. I think I listen more to stuff from those times now than I did before. But it was never something I consciously chose to emulate.

I think also that influence is really prevalent in pop music today and indie music — the electronic influence of synthesizers and drum machines. It’s inevitable to be influenced by that. My influences are all over the place, but with this EP there is definitely that more danceable, pop with an edgier approach.

Your vocals are mainly presented as airy and ethereal but you have the ability to reach into that powerhouse territory. How did you decide on your vocal aesthetic?
I definitely feel like there’s the side of me that is more interested in a soundscape when it comes to songs. When I approach it from that perspective, it tends to be something that is a lot more ethereal and smooth where the vocals are less of a leading, spotlight thing and more just another layer to the music. That was more of the approach to the first EP and the intro song of this EP.

But then I have this other side of me strictly as a singer. I grew up singing a lot of music where I was belting and singing the “diva” songs for fun. That was just learning the limits of my voice. So with “Bassically,” bringing that in where I’m belting and at a higher range I think is more powerful because it’s something that I have not really done before. It’s kind of unexpected. I love exploring that range. When it comes to my music I’ve been more hesitant to make it be like ‘I’m a singer!’

So did you consciously start off with trying to avoid the “diva belt?”
Yes. I went to music school and most of the people around me that were in the vocal department were singing like from a technical, powerhouse standpoint. There were so many incredible singers around me, but for me, I never wanted to be just a singer. I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to produce my own music. I wanted to have a different, more personalized approach.

It was kind of a rebellion against those vocal chops and knowing that if I wanted to I could try doing that — almost downplaying my vocals a little bit and making them another instrument that blends in with the music. I felt like people almost took you more seriously — this is probably a bad way of looking at things — but almost more seriously as a female vocalist if you are not simply just stretching and displaying grandiose vocals.  

You’ve dubbed your sound as “mermaid music.” Could you explain what that means to you and if that’s the sound you’re going to keep up with?
That was more than anything a kind of joking term. When I made my Facebook page I was working on that first EP and I didn’t really know what to put under description. I refrain from describing my music often. I just tell people to say listen to it because that’s the only way.

But with that, that’s just a term that popped into my head and I put it there. I think people thought it was fitting especially with the first EP because it was ethereal and siren-y and so vocal centric. I think that is akin to the mythical idea of what a mermaid is. I love that mythical creature. I don’t know if it will be necessarily something that applies forever but I think it’s also something I started out with and it can grow and change with me. A mermaid can sound like whatever she wants to sound like.